Music themes make comeback at EFM

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BERLIN -- EFM is hearing the music. This year a number of musical-themed movies are playing, and selling, in Berlin, though in ways you might not expect.

In the time since the "High School Musical" phenomenon swept the U.S. and the world, with the third movie, "High School Musical 3: Senior Year," making $252 million worldwide, you'd think that a marching band parade worth of movies with singing and dancing high schoolers would have flooded the market.

That didn't happen.

The U.K. did try to replicate something similar with ITV's "Britannia High," but that show was quickly axed. One problem is that the musical as a film genre is not embraced around the world. Japan, for example, has an incredible pop music industry but to marry that sensibility to film is another matter.

"We are not a musical people," a member of UniJapan said. "We like music, we like film, but we don't combine them."

Another problem may have been the specificity of the educational system. The U.S. system is unique and, while it travels, other countries have trouble exporting stories set in their high schools.

"(The American high school experience) is a piece of Americana that exports very well but it's very hard to replicate because school life is different in other countries," said Ben Roberts, CEO of Protagonist Pictures.

But what Roberts does see are themes such as friendship, rivalry, competition, romance. Those will be on display in Protagonist's "Street Dance 3D," featuring young people from the worlds of ballet and street dancing joining forces in a competition.

"Dance 3D" is emblematic of the kinds of projects being produced. The new movies take elements such as young people, music and dancing and reorganize them with local flavor.

Australian film "Bran Nue Dae," which is screening in the Generation 14plus section of the Berlinale, also puts a local spin on the youth musical genre. The title, which Bankside Films is selling in Berlin, is based on the hit stage musical by aboriginal songwriter Jimmy Chi. The story follows an indigenous Australian boy who runs away from his oppressive religious boarding school and embarks on a epic musical walkabout to find his way home.

"We Australians have a certain tradition with musicals -- from 'Rocky Horror Picture Show' to 'Happy Feet,'" "Bran Nue Dae" producer Robyn Kershaw said. "This film was an attempt to tell the history of Australia's aborigines in a way that doesn't focus on the guilt. We knew it was important to get past that if we wanted to get white Australians watching. We had to connect with them through the music and make them laugh."

Other offerings include:

-- "Stilyagi (Hipsters)," which became a Russian hit in December, features swing and jitterbugging youth in bright colors set to music from the 1950s (where the movie is set) as well as music from the 1990s.

-- "Dancing Ninja" is a brand new Korean offering from CJ Entertainment combining, wait for it, dancing with ninjas. The company isn't sure how it will be received domestically but is targeting the international marketplace.

-- Despite Japan not liking musicals, outfit NTV is riding high off its music-themed "Bandage," a rock band drama starring heartthrob Jim Akanishi, which opened theatrically in January. The movie has been sold for Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan, with negotiations currently going to bring it to Thailand.

-- Film Boutique on Sunday premiered its documentary "Dancing Dreams," about world-famous dancer and choreograher Pina Bausch plucking teens and training for a fancy performance. The movie has already sold to France and Korea.

Still, not everyone is ready to knock off the knockoff.

Walt Disney of all companies, is trying to rekindle the "High School Musical" magic in Germany with "Rock It!" a teen song-and-dance feature directed by Mike Marzuk and featuring German songs written by music producer Tobias Kuhn.

"It's a very German take on the 'High School Musical' genre," Walt Disney Germany managing director Thomas Menne said. "There aren't any kids playing basketball or anything like that." But Menne admits the Teutonic take is "an experiment."

"We don't know if German teenagers will go for it," he said. "Will they embrace a German teen musical the way they have the American ones?"

Disney will find out when it bows "Rock It!" in Germany on Feb. 18.
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